Book review: Villa America

American author Liza Klaussmann speaks to Sue Leonard about the toll the creative process can take on the imagination, particularly when writing fiction about factual characters 

Villa America 

Liza Klaussmann Picador, €16.99; Kindle, €10.55

THE American writer Liza Klaussmann has long been fascinated by literature of the 1920s. She loved the stories from this time, about the excessive parties on the French Riviera. And at the University of Columbia, she was passionate about the writing of Ernest Hemingway.

“I was a real Hemingway girl,” she says. “The Sun Also Rises was my favourite. I love that book; it’s so romantic and Hemingway is such a stylist. I had lots of arguments with a friend who said Scott Fitzgerald was the better writer, and later, when I was rereading Fitzgerald, I changed my mind. I decided he was the more fulsome writer with beautiful complex language. It seemed unjust to compare to him to Hemingway, who had a more obvious style.”

After college, life was full on for Liza. She became a business journalist for the New York Times, and worked for them in Paris. She loved the sity initially but, 10 years later, at 31, the lifestyle started to pall.

“Paris was a great place to live when I was young, but it’s hard to make a good life there,” she says. “It’s a socialist country and difficult to be an entrepreneur.

“I was tiring of the job, too. It was hard, and was all about calling people up who didn’t want to talk or to tell you things. I wasn’t a bad journalist, but I didn’t think I’d ever be a great one. I just didn’t have that killer instinct.”

Deciding to take a masters degree, she moved to London.

“I was excited about that, and London is magic. Arriving there was like falling in love. I was able to keep my job as European editor, and go to school.”

While at college, Liza started writing her debut novel, Tigers in Red Weather. But for her thesis, she returned to her second love and studied Scott Fitzgerald, comparing the two versions of Tender is the Night.

“When the novel first came out it wasn’t a success on any level; not critically or commercially, and Fitzgerald was devastated,” she says. “He had thought it was his great American novel. He wondered what he had done wrong that he had not conveyed his message properly, and he decided the structure was the problem, and it should be edited. His publishers refused to countenance this, and he died, but left notes saying how the book should be.”

After his death, Fitzgerald’s friend, the critic Malcolm Cowley undertook the changes, and a second edition, with the events happening chronologically, was published in 1948.

“Everyone argued ferociously about this version, and that led to a Fitzgerald revival. The second edition was eventually discounted as not the original work, but I read that edition first. I happened to find it on my parent’s bookshelves. And when I read the original, I felt Fitzgerald had been right. The chronological version is better.”

When he was writing Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda was in a psychiatric institution, and the novel, featuring psychoanalyst Dick Diver and his wife Nicole, clearly borrows from real life; but Fitzgerald always said the characters were based on the socialites Sara and Gerald Murphy.

A golden couple, the Murphys were at the epicentre of the Riviera social scene, giving lavish parties beloved of the literary and artistic set.

“There was a glow about the Murphys, and their generosity. I just fell in love with them, and with all those other people, for being eccentric in all those different ways and for their madness.”

The masters completed, Liza sold her debut novel in a two-book deal for a six-figure sum, and she decided that her second book would be based on Gerald and Sara Murphy. But by the time it came to write it, in the wake of her massively successful debut, she had had a crisis of confidence.

“There is something not entirely comfortable about using someone else’s real life for your own gain,” she says. “Something parasitic. I still struggle with that and feel a little apologetic. But I felt there was a story there that needed to be told. It is an ode to the couple; I’m not taking them down.

“I loved the research,” she says. “I went to Yale and read all the letters and diaries. But I had huge difficulty trying to figure out how to deal with the reality versus the fiction. It’s wrong to put words into someone’s mouth, but if you use their actual words that’s plagiarism.”

With her deadline approaching, Liza was stuck. Then she took herself in hand, and made the decision to just write the book from her imagination. And after that the words poured out.

“I wrote two thirds of it in three months,” she says. “I did nothing but work. I’d get up early, take my dog, a black miniature pinscher for a walk, then go for a run, and I’d start work at eight o’clock.

“I’d work though until five or six, and I did that for three months. I did nothing else. I didn’t go out and I didn’t see anyone. It was like training for a marathon. The longer you train the longer you can go every day. It was great in a way. I wish it could be like that all the time.”

Villa America is a sumptuous read. I loved Liza’s take on the Fitzgeralds, the Hemingways, and all their various hangers-on, both factual and fictitious. Such is her understanding for the minutiae of relationships, and her empathy for the, sometimes loathsome, actions of her characters, there is a real sense of authenticity. I felt that she had more compassion, and therefore more perception, for the lives she portrays than Scott Fitzgerald himself.

There’s great humour in some of her observations. Cole Porter’s wife, Linda, comes out with some wonderfully acerbic put downs. Discussing children with Sara, a devoted mother of three, she says: “I find with certain of our friends that the subject becomes positively obsessive, to the point where one wonders if the lady in question’s brain has been pushed out with the baby.”

Liza laughs, huskily, when I read that out.

“I enjoyed writing Linda,” she says. “It’s that voice in your own head that you hate yourself for having. I didn’t have those thoughts exactly, but it was nice voicing that kind of thing.”

The main fictitious character, Owen Chambers, is an enigma. A pilot who fought in the First World War he is an essential element in the story.

“I wanted a counterpoint to those jumped up artists. I needed someone who would view their lives critically.”

We’re talking before the book’s release, and Liza is nervous.

“I’m much more insecure about this book than the first one,” she says, “because with that there was no expectation. Its success was such a surprise.”

And she’s perhaps a little irked that since she came up with her idea, there have been a rake of books fictionalising the characters she describes.

“There’s been such an influx,” she says, naming The Paris Wife, Z for Zelda, and Mrs Hemingway. “There was something in the zeitgeist. But if people were interested in those books, then they might be in this one too.”

Liza’s third novel, now in its infancy, is to be set in the 1980s.

“It’s my childhood era, and will be pure fiction,” she says. “It’s nostalgic but completely different, and I feel very comfortable with it.”

For all that she misses the company of the Riviera set.

“I felt they belonged to me a little bit; almost as if I had conjured them up,” she says. “I had to keep reminding myself that they were real. And if readers want to know the real story they should also read the biographies. I feel very indebted to the writers who have laid the groundwork.”


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